Every food has a curious history. Wheat production was introduced into Zimbabwe as part of industrial agriculture in 1961. It was intensified from 1965 when the then Rhodesian government was placed under economic sanctions by Britain, the Commonwealth and the United Nations after a Unilateral Declaration of Independence. The then government had to device ways of producing its own food since it couldn’t import due to sanctions. Following independence in 1980, wheat became a major crop alongside maize, tobacco and cotton. However, over the past few decades, Zimbabwe’s wheat production levels went down from 340 000 metric tons in 2000 to about 40 000 metric tons in 2011. The decline has been attributed to many factors including lack of funding and inconsistent electricity power supply. Major wheat products are flour and bran. Flour is the main ingredient for making bread and other confectioneries while bran is mainly used in the stock-feed industry.
While policy makers, bakeries and the mainstream media have for many years been lamenting the decline in wheat production around Zimbabwe, evidence shows that wheat products like bread now have numerous substitutes. Ordinary people have adjusted their eating habits. Diets are rapidly changing so much that claims to the effect that Zimbabwe requires 400 000 metric tons of wheat per year have to be backed with sound facts and figures.
From a recent eMKambo survey, bread is losing its footing to substitutes like sweet potatoes, potatoes, butternuts, pumpkins, rice & tomato stew as well as boiled sugar beans, cow peas and roundnuts all mixed with maize to produce mutakura in Shona or Inkobe in Isindebele. In urban areas where urban farming has spread like wildfire, consumers are now producing their own bread substitutes mainly sweet potatoes. This development, together with increasing health consciousness among consumers, has certainly slashed the demand for bread. Economic hardships are also prompting many households to think creatively about how to save the elusive US$.
Every household tries to be conscious of the cost of a US$. Some of the key questions on consumers’ minds include: How much of a household’s US$ can buy a five litre bucket of sweet potatoes which can feed a family of six for the greater part of the day? Three cups of rice for a US$ can also feed a family of six for half a day. For many households, a dollar should take a family of six from breakfast to lunch whereas a loaf of bread that costs $1 cannot take a family of six for half a day. Resorting to bread also attracts other additives like margarine and jam costing at least $2 over and above the $1 for a loaf. In most households, a loaf of bread is now for children going to school with other members of the household depending on various substitutes for breakfast.
Given that wheat or bread has never been a mainstream commodity for the majority of Zimbabweans, questions on many people’s lips include: Why does winter wheat receive much more attention than other commodities that can do well in winter and are an integral part of ordinary people’s food basket? How does diverting electricity power to winter wheat production impact other commodities and industries whose performance also depend on electricity? For instance, horticulture commodities requiring cold chain and chicken production all need reliable refrigeration. To what extent are bread value chain actors like bakeries financing wheat production? Why should sugar bean growers and processors be affected when power is diverted to wheat merely because these other commodities do not have a loud policy voice? Don’t we have other options for winter production other than wheat?
Food diversity approach versus single commodities approach
In the current economic hardships, our decision making and resource allocation should be driven by strong situational awareness and evidence. Government, fananciers and development partners should support commodities that make up a bigger part of ordinary people’s food basket. These commodities include: vegetables, legumes and tubers as well as small grains like indigenous rice which people can process at home. Wheat has to go through many hidden processes before it shows up as bread in the shop. Wheat marketing is also very complicated even for the sophisticated farmers who have no idea what falling numbers (a grading quality parameter for wheat) mean.
If policy makers insist on wheat production, an innovative strategy should ensure wheat production happens alongside the development of small-scale flour processing unlike the current scenario where it is dominated by a few players. Small-scale processors should be empowered to show their craftiness and ingenuity around blending wheat flour with sweet potatoes, pumpkins and many other commodities – producing food artistically. Innovation around small-scale flour processing and other value addition efforts should see more employment creation triggered by wheat production as well as more disposable income and more blends between wheat flour and other commodities.
As much as we want to promote wheat production at national level, it differs from farmer to farmer depending on distance to market, access to electricity, availability of irrigation infrastructure, labour cost, etc. In addition, at the market every producer gets the same price irrespective of different contexts. Having remained at US$1 per loaf since dollarization in 2009, the price of a loaf of bread doesn’t seem to reflect the competitive environment in the flour and bread industry. In a purely competitive environment, compounded by other factors like the cash crisis, the price of bread should have been seen going down at some points. Since this has not happened, there appears to be collusion in the flour and bread-baking industry given that there are very few players who can rig the game in their favour. These players are probably benefitting at the expense of consumers, government and other actors like the Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority (ZESA), among others.
The mainstream media has not helped the situation by providing acres of space to three main commodities (Wheat, Maize and Tobacco) while saying nothing about more than 40 different commodities that are fundamental to the country’s food system. Adaptive solutions will result from looking at our food system holistically not as isolated commodities. By saturating newspapers and airwaves with wheat, maize and tobacco, the mainstream media is relegating other commodities to the margins. Farmers from Honde Valley who depend on fruits feel excluded from the agriculture discourse when their commodity is not mentioned at national level. Those in dry areas where sorghum and millet are the only gold also feel left out. Not to mention those in the southern part of Zimbabwe where livestock is the real McCoy.
The prevailing economic squeeze in Zimbabwe compels policymakers and development partners to base their investment decisions on empirical evidence. From food sovereignty and resource-allocation perspectives, it is no longer viable to support single commodities like winter wheat at the expense of an integrated food diversity system. Going forward, we have to carefully frame our messages and discourse around food. The same level of energy devoted to winter wheat should be seen extended to other commodities that do well in winter as well as rain-fed production of other crops by smallholder farmers. Focusing on single commodities impedes farmers from diversifying profit streams. An integrated food diversity strategy will enable farmers and other agriculture value chain actors to address the emerging needs of both urban and rural consumers at both national and international levels.
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